Friday, August 28, 2009

Nikki McClure: All in a Day's Work

For years, Nikki McClure’s self-published calendars have graced my office walls. I love the intricate beauty of her paper cuts and the ways in which she pays yearly homage to the nuances of each season. Her art is often peppered with words like "breathe" and "nourish" that challenge the observer to act with intention.

As are her many books. Her recent collaboration with Cynthia Rylant, All in a Day (Abrams, 2009) offers children and families a poignant reminder of the simple wonders that a day can have in store for us. I was thrilled to learn it landed on the NY Times bestseller list last spring, and that there are more books to come.

Nikki approaches art through communion with the natural world and her reverence for daily life. Whether it’s a Sleater-Kinney album cover, shirt design, or children’s book, each holds deep personal meaning for Nikki long after she’s put down her X-acto knife. On the way to her back yard studio, we passed a giant bucket full of blueberries. I suspect those berries will show up in her artwork before they make it into pies, and none will be wasted.

Nikki talked with me about her artistic journey and her successful foray into children’s literature. She also shared book recommendations, what makes her brain feel good, reflections on floor sweeping, and why she feels like a Lorax.

AB: Congratulations on the success of All in a Day. You’ve published at least four other kid-related titles including The Great Chicken Escape (1998), Welcome (2004), The First 1000 Days (Sasquatch, 2006), and Awake to Nap (Sasquatch, 2006). Were you always interested in children’s literature?

NM: I’ve always been into it, but it wasn’t until I had a child that I allowed myself to become fully immersed. I had collected some children’s books, like an obscure Maurice Sendak book from the ‘50s, but for the past five years I’ve been actively studying children’s literature.

AB: You went to college here in Olympia at Evergreen. Did you study art there?

NM: Mainly natural history, actually. I grew up in the Northwest, mistakenly thinking that salal berries were poisonous, so I wanted to learn the names of all the plants and animals that I shared my space with. I immersed myself in the sciences: entomology, botany, ornithology, soil science. I realized after doing some field work that my health and safety mattered more to me than data collection! So I thought about working in environmental education. I wanted to be a person who could travel around to schools talking about marine biology. That interest morphed into book making.

AB: How?

NM: In the early ‘90s, there wasn’t really a lot of kid-focused material on wetlands, so I felt like there was a need for a primer with an environmental message. I made Wetlands (1991) and it was funded by what is now People for Puget Sound. I rented a studio for $50 a month, covered it in linoleum curls, and delivered it ten weeks later. Nowadays, my images still have messages in them, but they’re more subliminal or instinctual.

AB: Have you always been artistic?

NM: When I was a kid, I’d dress up in crazy costumes to be “the artist.” In 6th grade, I decided to teach art to my fellow classmates! I was a misfit, but not a super nerd or anything. People always got along with me, but I liked to be different. I would go and sit in the park and play my flute badly to my dog, who’d howl. But I never thought I could be an artist when I grew up. I thought that was as attainable as becoming a princess or something. I was also the kid who sat and watched ants. An observer.

AB: When did you start doing paper cuts?

NM: I’d been working with scratch board, linoleum and India ink, doing the odd illustration job, when a friend of mine who went to Cooper Union named Tae Won Yu suggested I try paper cutting. When I did, it felt good inside my brain. Very meditative.

I began with my book Apple (1996). The first page was my first paper cut ever; the second page was my second. My work was a lot cruder to begin with, but now I use a supple cutting board from Japan that works so much nicer. I also like the challenge of working through mistakes in paper.

AB: During this period, you were designing album covers for the K Records and Kill Rock Stars labels. Were your books also part of the Riot Grrrl movement at the time?

NM: Yeah, it was kind of all happening at the same time, but the paper cut work was all post-Apple. I drew pictures for friends. It was all very natural and a part of my life. You work with what you know. Life is a political act. By making all these books, I was bringing what is personal to me to a political level. I was also expressing myself during the early nineties through what I would call “sung word”. I didn’t really play instruments, but I would strum the guitar, performing, touring, and making singles and records. As I started making more books and more images, I found I didn’t need to express myself by standing in front of a large crowd, knees shaking. With paper cutting, I like the idea that there’s this quiet interaction between my work and someone who’s sitting down and just looking at it or reading it – one person at a time.

AB: How did you first publish your books? Did you have an inroad or was it do-it-yourself?

NM: I’d just go to Kinko’s, then local press. But when I first started out, making something like All in a Day with Cynthia Rylant seemed like an impossible other world.

AB: What led you to illustrate All in a Day?

NM: The calendars – I call them my spores. They go out into the world. I’ve been doing them for ten years now and have doubled the volume each year. This year I’m publishing 15,000. They work better than any kind of portfolio or calling card. They end up in places like Patagonia design. This was also how I got a call from Steven Malk, asking to be my agent. That felt too easy. People ask me, “How do you get your foot in the door?” and I think, “I don’t know– I went through the back door. I don’t know where the front door is!”

I was in the punk rock world where people don’t have agents. I felt I could continue in the realm of self-publishing, but at the same time, I was limited in production quality. Paper cutting reproduces well, but four-color print jobs had been too giant for me.

I became aware that if I wanted to do more, I would have to work with larger companies. I looked at who Steven represented. He’s working with Carson Ellis. I emailed her and asked about Steven. She was exuberant, saying, “He’s gotten me all of these book deals!” And he represents Cynthia Rylant, an established writer. Carson’s great and talented, and I could relate to her story because Steven had approached Carson in the same way and she had been new to the book publishing world. But Cynthia Rylant was a veteran. So I decided to try working with Steve.

And I had already been working on a collection of my artwork called Collect Raindrops (Abrams, 2007) and asked him if he’d help me with negotiations. It made things smoother and the communication more pure. Eva Prinz was my editor at Rizzoli, but she left when she refused to publish a paper plane book with war planes in it. As a mother of a young child, I admire that. So she went to Abrams and the first book she brought over was mine.

AB: So next up came All in a Day?

NM: Yes. Steven showed me what Cynthia had written with my images in mind. She had bought the calendar at this small fine paper shop in Seattle called “de Medici Ming”. When I first went to de Medici Ming trying to sell my calendar, the lady insisted she didn’t have room to sell it. I said, “Yes you do! Here are three. If you sell them, you can pay me and I’ll give you more. If you don’t, then don’t worry about it.” Now they sell around seventy. I just love that connection- that Cynthia Rylant found my calendar at a store that almost didn’t carry it! And I love Cynthia’s writing. It’s really comforting. Her books make you feel good in a way that’s not sugary sweet.

AB: I get that same feeling from your work as well, so your collaboration feels like a natural synthesis to me.

NM: Writing my book after working with her made me realize that she uses the perfect words, perfect cadence, perfect message. She makes it look easy, but it’s so hard! I felt really lucky to have the opportunity to work with Cynthia.

AB: You sent out your spores. You’ve earned it! As Seneca said, “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.” Who was your art director for this book?

NM: Chad Beckerman is my art director and Susan Van Metre is my editor for the children’s books at Abrams. Together we worked out what a day would contain. Susan, working in New York, initially had the idea that the child would go out into the big world more, but I was interested in exploring all the possibilities of a young child’s world while keeping it close to home. I went to a park down the street for inspiration, which is where my family often was while I was working on this book. My son calls All in a Day his book since he’s prominently featured in it, so it’s very personal to me.

AB: Like Joseph Campbell said, “Follow your bliss.” The best art does.

NM: All in a Day was the first project I made in my new studio. The birch trees outside the window became the fixed point in the pictures throughout the book. All the action happens around them. It was really symbolic for me, too. When I was thirty I bought this house as a self-employed artist and used every penny I had. I had no idea when I planted these trees that I would one day look upon them and feature them in a book and watch my family grow around them. So yes, All in a Day is bliss based, but different than the kind of carefree bliss I felt when I had done prior books. All in a Day was intentional bliss.

AB: Someone who reviewed All in a Day on Amazon said it had a “retro feel”. I thought that was interesting, because I haven’t seen your work as “retro”; I see it as “now”.

NM: Well, my child actually does wear suspenders every day! That is his outfit. He wears a wool, long-sleeved shirt and suspendered pants. He calls our home a farm, but it’s not in an Amish town –

AB: -it’s in downtown Olympia!

NM: Yeah! But I do love older children’s books by people like Robert McCloskey. Paper cutting is also a traditional art. And through my art, I’m always looking to accentuate the positive elements of being human. We’re really good at communicating, working together, using tools, telling stories, imagining, and working with our hands. So how do we use these skills to fix some of the parts of society that aren’t working? I don’t want my art to say, “Don’t do this!” I want it to say, “Keep doing what matters! Sweep your floor!” [laughing] Even when I sweep my floor, I’m aware of a basic link we have with humans who once lived in caves. Links we have with all of humanity, just through simple acts. If we lose sight of that, we lose our connections.

AB: I think your art works like a meditative bell: Remember!

NM: And remember Blueberries for Sal! [laughing] That’s a really important book.

AB: I’d love to know what books you grew up reading as a kid.

NM: Blueberries for Sal was definitely one of them. The Lonely Doll by Dare Wright, with super creepy black and white photos of a doll, but beautiful, too.

AB: You really gravitate to the contrast of black and white.

NM: And the pink gingham of The Lonely Doll! I also really liked The Black Stallion. And Moomin Summer Madness by Tove Janssen. Her illustrations are incredible and her characters are so real. They have their flaws and the black and white illustrations are so great. Also, I could read Wind in the Willows every day forever. We pretend we’re mole and ratty often around here.

AB: Had you read The Box of Delights (NYR Children’s Collection, 2007), and The Midnight Folk (NYR Children’s Collection, 2008) by John Masefield before you illustrated the covers?

NM: No, but now I really like them a lot. The first one has a lot of gun action, so I haven’t read it with my five year-old son yet, but I will soon. Have you read the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome?

AB: You’re the second person I’ve interviewed who has recommended it to me, so I definitely will.

NM: We just finished Coot Club last night. All three of us stumbled into bed for the conclusion. A dear friend of mine has been giving them to my son, and they really capture the feeling of being a child. They don’t take place in a magic land like Harry Potter; but there’s magic in how the children interpret real adventures through their imagination.

AB: You have two books in the pipeline which you are both writing and illustrating. Tell me about your upcoming book Mama is it Summer Yet? (Abrams, 2010)

NM: One day in March, my son came out in his bathing suit and asked, “Mama, is it summer yet?” I thought that could be a book about a child wanting it to be summer, but having to wait. I wrote minimal text and made it into a conversation between the child and the mother.

My initial set of full-sized sketches was kind of too cheeky – in one scene, the child was dressed up in a snorkel, in another, he was in his underwear. Susan suggested that I work on it more. So I sketched small thumbnails and she approved them. Receiving approval on thumbnails allowed for the freedom to incorporate additional elements in a larger format. I added details that could suggest the current state of the season, like mittens by the window and mushroom drawings in the background. I also placed cameos of some of my favorite books in the art. Comet in Moominland by Tove Janssen , Life Story by Virginia Lee Burton, and, of course, Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey.

AB: What about the second book of your own that you’re working on?

NM: To Market To Market is its working title and should be on shelves in spring of 2011. I just went to a farm today to do an interview for it. It’s currently vignettes about farms and local farmers markets- the creation of how things get planted to how they get harvested and taken to market. I took my first pictures today and brought my son along, so we did a lot of tractor touring. This particular farm has been growing rye as a cover crop, and they’ve realized they can feed their chickens with the rye and use straw to grow mushrooms in. This might seem nostalgic and old-timey, but it’s the future, too. It’s sustainable.

AB: Nikki, thank you so much for your time today. I’ve got just a couple more questions. When you mentioned sustainability, it made me wonder: could you tell me about how your books are printed?

NM: I feel like such a Lorax, but All in a Day was printed on 100% recycled paper in the U.S. and Abrams charged $1 more to cover the cost. It matters to me and I think it matters to my audience. When I work with Sasquatch, they print in China, but they use recycled paper. Now, I’m working with Chronicle on postcards called Take Care (2009). They initially told me that they "endeavor to use" recycled paper. But I was the first to get them to sign a contract with 100% recycled paper with soy-based ink and now they’re starting an eco-line!

AB: How about for your next two books?

NM: Abrams felt they couldn’t make that commitment due to the downturn in the economy, so I wrote a note to the president of Abrams and stuck it on the contract, saying that I think it’s really important to print locally and use recycled paper. He called me back and told me that he’d never received a personalized note attached to a contract before, and that they would do their best to try to accommodate my request. So Mama is it Summer Yet? is being printed at the same press as All in a Day and I understand with recycled paper as well. When I make things, I don’t want to cut trees down to make it. I use recycled materials, because I just don’t think I could ever make anything as good as a tree myself.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Voyage of Heather Vogel Frederick

At 1 pm on August 27th at A Children’s Place, author Heather Vogel Frederick will showcase the third book in her popular Mother Daughter Book Club series, Dear Pen Pal (Simon & Schuster, September, 2009). This entertaining series helps bring mothers and tween daughters together to read while surreptitiously educating them about classic fiction by women such as Louisa May Alcott, L.M. Montgomery, Jane Webster and Jane Austen. She is also the author of The Voyage of Patience Goodspeed series about an intrepid girl who learns to navigate a whaling ship, the award nominated Spy Mice series wherein tweens and mice engage in espionage, and two picture books coming to shelves near you in 2010.

I had the pleasure of meeting Heather at the May SCBWI Oregon conference, where she inspired me in her enlightening seminar Borrowed Fire: Getting to the Heart of Character. Offering humor and Hershey’s kisses as motivation, Heather pried me out of my shell and got me reading my work in front of a room full of seasoned writers. No small feat.

During last month’s heat wave, Heather joined me in my sweltering living room to discuss her work over iced tea. She generously shared insights about her journey as a writer. I was excited to note that her passion for libraries rivals my own. It seems we may be cut from the same roll of acid-free book jacket plastic! Our lovely chat covered everything from pink kitchens, whale oil and mean girls to what she would do if she were Empress of the World.

AB: You have written three series of middle grade novels. Did you always plan to write in installments?

HVF: No, I didn’t set out to do this, but growing up, I loved to know that there was a sequel by the same author with the same characters I cared about, waiting for me. Whether it was Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising or Nancy Drew.

AB: I understand that your editor approached you with an idea that led to your Mother Daughter Book Club series. Could you tell me a bit about its origins?

HVF: My editor called and said, “There are mother daughter book clubs around the country. I’m thinking that somebody should write a novel about one.” She knew I spent part of my childhood in Concord, Massachusetts where Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women. When I sit down to write, the voice that comes out is about eleven or twelve and I’ve become very happy in this tween world I inhabit. Even though I’m drawing on my memories of being in middle school, the books seem to resonate with girls today. We have different fashions, drive different cars. But we’ve always had to deal with mean girls. In Little Women, Jenny Snow is a mean girl. In Anne of Green Gables, it’s Josie Pye. In my series, it’s Becca Chadwick. In the fourth installment, the girls will be reading Pride and Prejudice with the deliciously awful Caroline Bingley.

AB: In your third installment Dear Pen Pal which comes out in September, the book club reads Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs and Dear Enemy. What led you to choose these books for the girls to read?

HVF: I decided to keep consistent by selecting another book with a female main character, written by a female author. The minute I thought of Daddy-Long-Legs it was one of those “well of course!” moments. I actually wasn’t familiar with Webster’s other books, so it was a treat to discover and have an excuse to read those as well.

AB: You're currently writing the fourth installment in which the book club will read Jane Austen. You spent some of your childhood in England. How long did you live there?

HVF: A little over half a year. My dad was an elementary school principal. He got a grant from Harvard to study innovative curriculum. We lived in a tiny village outside of Leicester in a four hundred year old stone cottage with a thatched roof and a pink kitchen. It was the best place ever.

AB: Were there any books you were exposed to in England that you might not otherwise have come across?

HVF: Yes. Arthur Ransome’s fabulous Swallows and Amazons series about some kids up in The Lake district and their adventures with a sailboat. Also E. Nesbit- specifically The Railway Children.

AB: How old were you when you lived in England?

HVF: I was eleven, just like the girls at the start of The Mother Daughter Book Club series. I was such a romantic. Down the street were the ruins of the castle where Lady Jane Grey lived. There was a part of me that still believed in magic and thought that maybe there could really be something lurking out there in the ivy covered stone walls. In the fourth installment of The Mother Daughter Book Club, my character Emma and her family will live in England for a year- in my old house!

AB: Will you write about the pink kitchen?

HVF: Absolutely!

AB: I’m excited to read it already! In The Mother Daughter Book Club series, you write from the perspective of each of the four girls (Emma, Jess, Cassidy and Megan) in the book club. Could you tell me about your process of defining each character?

HVF: I started by rereading Little Women and that gave me the idea for four characters for the series. The March girls are very different. Jo is a tomboy; Amy is artistic, Meg is very conscious of social stratification, and Beth is a homebody. I thought that would be a good thing to echo. I try not to edit a first draft too much. You can strangle yourself if you try to get it perfect. Then in the revision process, I really tried to sharpen the different voices among the girls.

AB: You’ve wanted to be a writer since childhood. What particular influences led you on this path?

HVF: My family of bookworms. At a typical Vogel family gathering, we’d all be sitting on the sofa reading! My father read to me and my sisters every single night before bed. As soon as I could sign my name, I got a library card. I remember that shiver of excitement I’d always get entering a library, that distinct library smell, and the feeling that there was always something waiting for me there to take home and read and treasure. I devoured books growing up. When I was seven or eight, I had the ambition to read through everything in the children’s section, A-Z. I started on the first shelf. But that didn’t last long, because pretty soon I got into sports biographies- no, thank you! I’ve always lived within walking distance of a library.

AB: Has that been intentional?

HVF: When my husband and I were looking for houses, the first thing I would do was check out the library. A well-supported library told me a lot about the town.

AB: Any other influences?

In college I took a course on children’s literature. Marjorie Hamlin, the librarian who taught the class at Principia College, changed the course of my life. She was amazing and remains a dear friend to this day. She reintroduced me to books I had read when I was young, and introduced me to new writers. I remember sitting outside one day on the grass reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising thinking this was what I wanted to do.

AB: When did you first start writing?

HVF: I wrote my first novel when I was 12 at summer camp and my first novel as an adult after college when I lived in Cologne, Germany on a Fulbright scholarship. I like to joke that I was their distribution requirement. Everyone else with a Fulbright was from the Ivy Leagues and I was this little squirt from a college that no one had ever heard of in the Midwest. It was really wonderful. I still have good friends from that year.

I was kind of homesick off and on so just like at summer camp, I took refuge in writing. I wrote a tween middle grade novel. I came back to the U.S. and sent it to Houghton Mifflin. Of course, I got a rejection letter. But at that point, there was no SCBWI and I was too young and na├»ve to know there was a difference between a good rejection and a bad rejection. All I saw was, “Your book isn’t right for our lists.” I paid no attention to the next paragraph that went on to praise the things they liked about it and they asked if I had anything else!

AB: Do you still have that letter?

HVF: Yes, and it breaks my heart to some degree, but that was what propelled me into journalism because I had to find a way -- other than my dream of writing fiction -- to earn a living. I started off as a copy kid and worked my way up the ranks. And that was the best thing that could have happened then. It taught me wonderful skills. It matured me and ripened me for when I sat down to write again after twenty years.

AB: Can you tell me about your career as a journalist?

HF : I began at The Christian Science Monitor. I did various features writing jobs for them, was the assistant living page editor, and became the children's book review editor. I did that for about five years. After the kids were born and I was home, I started reviewing for Publisher’s Weekly. I would get various assignments interviewing an author, or writing big roundup pieces about things like trends in garden books. I worked there for 15 years and was a contributing editor by the end. I consider Publisher’s Weekly my graduate school because I read thousands of books working for them. And it was a delight. I saw what worked, and what didn’t.

AB: Let’s talk about your inspirations for your other two book series. Neil Gaiman wrote on his blog, “You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we're doing it.”

HVF: Exactly. Most of us carry little notebooks with us, because ideas come at very strange times. Mine often come in church or in the shower. Once I burnt a pot of soup when I went to write something down, but I had to or I’d never remember it!

AB: The Voyage of Patience Goodspeed was your first published book. What was your kernel of inspiration for the Patience Goodspeed series?

HVF: Pure serendipity. I was researching my genealogy and discovered that there was a branch of my family who were whalers living on Nantucket Island. An ancestor of mine ran away from the family farm and went to sea when he was fifteen. I had been force fed Moby Dick in high school and hated it, but I started reading general books about life at sea in the whaling industry and was fascinated. These voyages would last two to three years at a time in order to fill the hold with enough oil. That’s a long time to be away from the family. If you had a game wife, you took her and the kids and raised them at sea. There was a whole society of whaling families at sea.

AB: Why did you decide that the main character Patience would be a girl?

HVF: The main character was originally a boy, but then I found out that there were many girls at sea, many bright women who were bored out of their minds because there was nothing there for them to do, so they learned to navigate. That gave me the idea for the character of Patience.

AB: I assume you were somewhat connected to the publishing world at that point, having worked for Publisher’s Weekly. Was it easy to find a publisher?

HVF: You’d think so, but no. Reviewing books is a separate thing from the world of publishing. It’s like standing outside a bakery. You don’t know how the pies are made at the back of the shop. I had connections with writers, which was lovely, but not with publishers or editors- the back of the shop.

I got a grant from Oregon Literary Arts, and I just can’t sing their praises enough. It’s such a boost for a writer to submit something and have somebody say, “We’ll give you money so you can finish it.” The day I wrote the novel's last sentence, I burst into tears from that sense of completion and the fact that I knew in my bones I’d written something good.

But then what to do with it? A friend suggested I send it to her editor, Kevin Lewis at Simon & Schuster. I did, and he called me back a short time later and said, “Your writing is wonderful. I love your characters; however, nothing happens in the first hundred pages.” I had left out the plot! He very generously gave me a lesson in plot over the phone and poured out his ideas of what we could do. I polished the manuscript up, sent it off, and they bought it.

AB: Let’s talk about your second series. Spy Mice: Goldwhiskers has been nominated for the 2010 Massachusetts Children’s Book Award. Congratulations! It’s the third title in your Spy Mice series. Can you tell us about the evolution of Spy Mice?

HVF: The initial idea was sparked by a newspaper story I read about building The Spy Museum in Washington, DC. I thought instantly of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and had a goose bump moment: why not set a story in The Spy Museum? I have learned over the years to pay attention to those goose bump moments. Because when something really resonates with me, chances are it will with readers as well. I clipped out the article and saved it. I didn’t add the mouse element until years later when I finally sat down to write the story.

AB: Sally Wern Comport illustrated the US editions and Adam Stower for the UK publications. How might this affect how your work is received?

HVF: For me, it’s fascinating how Sally and Adam have such different visions of my story. As for affecting my work, if I were Empress of the World, I would make sure all middle grade fiction had illustrations in it!

AB: Speaking of illustrations, you’ve got two picture books coming out next year.

HVF: Babyberry Pie (Harcourt, 2010) and Hide and Squeak (Simon & Schuster, 2010) are bedtime books, both written in rhyme. Babyberry Pie likens the bathtime-and-getting-ready-for-bed ritual to making a pie- popping a “babyberry” into a pie crust (under the bedcovers), etc. Hide and Squeak recounts the evasion tactics of a little one who doesn’t want to go to bed. In this case, the little one is a mouse who leads his daddy on a wild chase through the house before finally getting caught.

AB: I understand that Amy Schwartz is illustrating Babyberry Pie and C.F. Payne is illustrating Hide and Squeak. I love their work.

HVF: I scored big with both of them! I can’t wait to see their final results, because with picture books, I do not have a preconceived notion of what they should look like. I’m not an artistic soul. I can’t even draw stick figures.

AB: Is your picture book creative process different from your novel writing?

HVF: Picture books are a mystery to me. Mem Fox once wrote, “Writing a picture book is like writing War and Peace in haiku,” which is true. The initial ideas for mine come to me almost complete, like a gift left on my doorstep in a nice little basket. Then it’s up to me to wrestle them into the bath and clean them up a bit.

AB: Is there a book that you feel you’re most proud of writing?

HVF: That’s like asking parents who is their favorite child, but to some degree, I’d say the first one I wrote: The Voyage of Patience Goodspeed. Just getting to the end was such a sense of accomplishment. But I’ve really enjoyed writing each book.

AB: What are you reading these days?

HVF: I’ve usually got a couple of biographies going. Right now, I’ve got one about P.L. Travers who wrote Mary Poppins, and one about P.G. Wodehouse; one of my favorite authors. And right now, I’m mired in stacks of books about Jane Austen, which is no hardship for me. I really like the research process. No matter what book I’m writing, I manage to find a research angle.

I’ve also read some recent middle grade fiction: Roseanne Perry’s Heart of a Shepherd. I loved that book. I highly recommend it. To add another MG rave to the mix, I read Richard Peck’s The River Between Us over the weekend (-yes, I know, I was supposed to be working on my own book, but I got distracted, what can I say?) He is truly an amazing writer. Can I be him when I grow up?

AB: An implicit part of being a children’s writer is touring schools and libraries and talking with other readers. Is that a part of your job that you enjoy?

HVF: Very much so. I love doing school visits. There’s a real energy that comes from talking to kids. What I never could have foreseen is that I’m now frequently asked to talk with mother daughter book clubs across the country by using Skype, but locally sometimes in person. At the age of eleven or twelve, readers are right on the cusp of adulthood. There’s sweet innocence combined with wit and savvy. Maybe it fills my need for a daughter, since I’ve got two boys!

AB: What do your sons think of your writing- are they supportive?

HVF: Yes! When my older son read the first Patience book he said, “Mom, that last part was so exciting, I forgot you wrote it.” That was the best compliment ever.

AB: Do you find yourself giving advice to young burgeoning writers?

HVF: I love responding to fan mail and email. I tell them to read. That’s the most important tip at that age, because they’re little sponges capable of soaking up beautiful language. I share the trick about keeping a notebook handy, and to not put too much pressure on themselves. They just should be having fun with it. I suggest that they find a writing partner to have someone to read things to.

AB: Heather, thank you so much for talking with me today. I have one last question: what advice do you wish someone would have offered you when you set out on your writing journey?

HVF: Just relax- you’re going to get there. Keep on course, your eye on the horizon, enjoy your life now. Enjoy time with your family. I think sometimes writers have a tendency to think all will be great once they get published, but it isn’t the Holy Grail. Real life is more important. Writing is a gift that I have to give. But life is bigger than just art.